The Doral chief of police is in the eye of the storm as he is the center of a state investigation for alleged public corruption. Some community activists and political leaders are convinced the investigation came after false and anonymous allegations were made with the intent of tarnishing Mayor Juan Carlos Bermudez’s administration and his political career.
By Cindy Rodriguez-Pereira - firstname.lastname@example.org
It seems like the City of Doral is caught up in a never-ending web of tittle-tattle and political scandals. Just when everything seemed to be running smoothly, after two new council members – Luigi Boria and Ana Maria Rodriguez – had joined what used to be a politically divided council, the city is once again making headlines after reports of a state investigation for alleged public corruption within the police department. But as it often happens in Doral, it seems as if things are not purely black and white. On the contrary, there are a lot of grays in between. Some residents and local politicians feel the probe is just a political strategy to negatively affect the mayor’s political plans and a way for some other political figures get be back in good standing with the voters and advance their own agendas.
It all started when the city manager received an anonymous letter back in March. The writer identifies himself as “just an officer who wants a long and happy career with the City of Doral Police Department and cannot stand this injustice.” In the letter, the officer accuses Chief of Police Ricardo Gomez of favoritism in promoting agents and also claims some officers are paid overtime wages for hours they never worked.
“Even though the allegations were anonymous, the City began an internal investigation,” said City Manager Yvonne Soler-McKinley. She said she sought advice from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) and handed over the information and they too began their own investigation.
What is unclear and shady about this case is the matter that is being investigated. Some unofficial sources, and the media itself, reported that Chief Gomez is under investigation for contracts he negotiated when acquiring furniture for the department and also for a private monetary donation that was used to pay for the police department’s inauguration party.
However, the anonymous letter makes no reference to any of these issues. It is only fair to question where this information came from and whether it was released with a particular intent in mind. There is no proof confirming or denying that the Chief is being investigated for any of these allegations.
FDLE has confirmed that there is an open investigation for alleged public corruption but would not provide any further details. Neither Gomez nor city staff can comment on the matter until the investigation is closed.
“It is not proper to take any action until the investigation is concluded. At that point, we will evaluate our options and take the appropriate actions, acting responsibly as a government. We cannot comment further on this matter, as it is under investigation,” said Public Information Coordinator Helena Poleo in an official statement.
Gomez founded the Doral Police Department in 2008 and is the only chief the city has known.
But although he is now in the eye of the storm and at the center of a serious investigation, community leaders and activists have their doubts as to the origin of the allegations. Some strongly feel the probe is part of a political scheme devised by critics of Mayor Juan Carlos Bermudez’s administration.
We should begin by analyzing the statements that have been given to the press in the past few days.
As soon as the news broke, Councilmember Pete Cabrera and former Councilmember Sandra Ruiz were the first political figures to appear on camera making statements and shedding negative light on Chief Gomez and his administration.
Coincidentally, Cabrera and Ruiz are strong critics of Bermudez’s administration and were many times the dissenting votes in the council.
Ruiz has long suspected and even told NBC 6 that she was sure there were many backroom deals made in the police department. In a phone interview with Ciudad Doral Newspaper, Ruiz said she felt uncomfortable with the police department ever since a police officer was fired for what she and Cabrera believe were political reasons under a budget excuse. She said the way in which the officer was dismissed was inappropriate, especially because someone else was hired immediately. That someone else was an officer from the City of South Miami, the same city in which the city manager used to work previously, said Ruiz.
In previous interviews, City Manager Soler-McKinley has explained the Doral police officer was dismissed due to serious infractions and not due to politics or favoritism.
The former councilwoman also said she was not surprised another department is now overlooking what is happening inside the City of Doral. She also said, on camera, that the investigation needs to move forward in order to see if the problem has escalated to the extent in which even the elected officials could be involved.
The other critical figure in this puzzle, which is worth looking at, is Councilmember Cabrera. He has been all over the news – radio, print, television - in regard to this issue in the “I told you so” kind of way.
Ironically, city staff has said numerous times that no one is allowed to make comments as long as the investigation is ongoing. But it seems Cabrera is not willing to waste any time, although he did not return a call made by Ciudad Doral Newspaper.
He did tell several news outlets that he had been trying to bring the problem to light for the past three years because he knew there were issues with regard to abuse of power and corruption in the police department. He also claims to have received complaints from “many” demoralized officers who were seeking his help. His efforts to bring the truth forth resulted in personal attacks, said the councilmember. But in these three years Councilmember Cabrera has not been able to produce any proofs of his accusations, nothing that shows the chief is guilty of public corruption.
He did make an attempt to prove that things weren’t going well at City Hall, but that backfired. A couple months ago Cabrera used the pages of a local newspaper, El Venezolano, which has become a commonly used platform to criticize Bermudez’s administration, to denounce mismanagement at City Hall. At the time, Cabrera provided pictures, taken by himself, of “empty spaces” that were not being utilized and therefore were costing the taxpayers money.
At the time, Ciudad Doral Newspaper visited and toured City Hall only to find out that the “empty spaces” were hallways in which employees could not be placed because it is against the law due to safety issues.
It is important to reflect and ask, what are the intentions of these two individuals? Ruiz is no longer part of the local government but it seems like she still is; she still wants to be center stage. Why?
“I am a resident of Doral. My heart is in Doral,” said Ruiz, adding her only desire is to help the city get through difficult times and emphasizing that she was a resident of Doral even before she became a politician.
For his part, Cabrera has been trying to gain popularity with the people; rallying up voters and denouncing alleged irregularities that have never been proven.
“I continue to fight for the community. We need to get through this phase and start building up again,” he told El Nuevo Herald.
And it seems like he is trying really hard to do away with the old and begin something new. Cabrera has been pushing for Chief Gomez’s suspension during the course of the investigation.
On an email he sent a legal consultant with the City Attorney’s Office, Cabrera inquires about Charter provisions, specifically one about suspending employees who are under investigation and seeks clarification on whether the chief of police must abide by the policy. Kara Nickel explains in a reply email that there is a difference between administrative leave, which could happened during the investigation and a suspension, which is to take place after the completion of an investigation.
In addition, she explains the word “shall” that appears on the rule does not make an administrative leave mandatory, as if this were the case the city would have numerous employees on paid administrative leave at any given time. It would also result in employees being on leave for small periods of time as investigations are conducted for infractions such as posting a flyer on a city bulletin or smoking. It would also allow for employees to make unfounded claims or complaints against supervisors.
According to Charter policy, only the city manager can make the determination to suspend Chief Gomez and she has already said that will not be the case, at least for now.
“I believe in the principle that everyone is innocent until proven guilty, and decisions about suspensions should not be made lightly,” said City Manager Soler-McKinley. “Additionally, concerning the specific case of Chief Gomez, because of the sensitivity of the issue and the additional investigation being conducted by the FDLE in full cooperation with the City of Doral, I consulted the FDLE on whether Chief Gomez should be suspended. I was advised by the FDLE to not suspend him, as this could interfere with the investigation.”
What are the real reasons behind the actions of these two individuals who, today, are still tangled in political controversies? How genuine are their claims? Why are they pointing the finger before the results of the investigation are in?
Mayor Bermudez will run for Miami-Dade County Mayor in 2012, a big political step for him, and has repeatedly said Cabrera and Ruiz are politically driven and are trying to weaken his political campaign.
In regards to what is behind the anonymous allegations and the investigation he said, “I do not know if this was motivated by political reasons or not. However, when a former Council-member, who has said she wants to run again after losing her most recent election, and a sitting Councilmember attack the City despite the fact that we did more than what is normally done by other governments, which is investigate anonymous claims sent to the City, then certainly I believe those individuals have taken advantage to try to derive political benefit from this situation.”
Bermudez also criticized Cabrera for his media appearances. “Despite being advised that we should not comment or interfere with any outside or internal investigation into these anonymous charges, we see a sitting councilmember, who has expressed his desire to be a candidate for Mayor in 2012, making accusations against the city in the press.”
Although Cabrera and Ruiz have continued to demand transparency from Bermudez’s administration, their history as part of the council is not impeccable.
Recently, Ruiz had to reimburse around $1,500 to the city for costs incurred in an investigation after she claimed an email was sent from her account by someone else. The investigation concluded that the email was sent from her personal computer. Although she did not ask for the investigation to take place and did not want police involved, Chief Gomez was the one who started the process, which was completed by state investigators.
Ruiz continues to claim she did nothing wrong and emphasizes she did not have to pay a fine. She thought it was only fair to reimburse the money because her server’s security, not the city’s, had failed.
In addition to this incident, the former councilwoman has more on her record. Three city employees, all female, filed formal complaints against her for behaviors ranging from physical abuse to verbal abuse, intimidation and public humiliation. The same three employees also accused Cabrera of abuse of power and intimidation.
Back then, critics of Cabrera and Ruiz thought the issues with city staff were political, the council was already divided. Critics called it a strategy to discredit the city and gain voter support. The employees themselves felt they were caught up in the middle of a political battle and were being used by the councilmembers who wanted to promote their own agendas. The problems began after Mayor Bermudez demoted Cabrera, who lost his vice mayor seat to Mike DiPietro.
At the time the city hired outside counsel to investigate the claims. The investigators ruled there was enough evidence to prove a hostile work environment did exist at Doral’s City Hall. They recommended the hiring of a mediator in trying to heal relationships. But according to the alleged victims, nothing changed.
Consequently, one of the employees, City Clerk Barbara Herrera took matters into her own hands and filed a legal suit against Cabrera. In the lawsuit she claimed she had felt threatened and discriminated against, and even feared for her safety.
Cabrera tried to have the claim dismissed, but his request was partially denied by a judge from the eleventh judicial circuit court. A count of intentional infliction of emotional distress was dismissed but the judge did not dismiss a count of assault. The case was settled through the Florida League of Cities and none of the parties can disclose details of the agreement. But, if there was an agreement, we can conclude there was some evidence found and that the councilmember was not completely innocent.
City Manager Soler-McKinley also filed a formal complaint but took it a step further by filing it not with the city but with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), a federal agency that enforces employment discrimination laws.
Economic Development Coordinator Bettina Rodriguez-Aguilera also filed formal complaints through the EEOC against Cabrera and Ruiz.
Those investigations are still open at this time.
As a result of the complaints, the city council adopted an ordinance to establish a Code of Ethics for elected officials to follow which calls for members of the council to show “appropriate” behavior at all times and to “avoid personal comments that could offend other persons.” Cabrera and Ruiz voted against the ordinance.
Investigations are not new to City Hall as we can see. Some of them have shed light on what the real problems are while others have been short of proving anything worthwhile. This is another one on the list of scandals and we can only wait for the results. If there are serious problems, such as corruption, only time will tell. It will be impossible, though, to recuperate all the thousands of dollars wasted so far.
Vice-mayor Mike DiPietro has asked the public to remain calm and patient until the results of the investigation are out. He did not want to jump to conclusions.
Former Councilmember Robert Van Name, who will be on the ballot again in 2012, said he was suprised by the public corruption allegations. He said the word “corruption” is very strong and has many connotations and should not be used deliberately.
Our intentions are not to point fingers or defend anyone. We just want readers to seek the truth and look at the facts. It is very easy to point fingers and make allegations, but only the evidence can tell who is right and who is wrong. If we can all learn something from this situation, it would be the fact that politics is a dirty business and Doral is not exempt. This is a time when it is important to know who is who in the game. Some are playing the game dangerously and the consequences for them could be catastrophic. Ciudad Doral Newspaper will continue to seek the facts and the truth. We will have more information on this case in our next issue.
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